Saturday, March 15, 2008

National Archives: The New Deal on Film

The National Archives in Washington DC participated in the ED 16th Annual Environmental Film Festival with a full day Saturday, March 15, of old films on the theme “For a Better America: The New Deal on Film.” The event was held in the stadium-seated McGowan Theater downstairs, with free seating.

I attended the early Saturday PM program, “The Land and the Environment.” There were two shorts and two featurettes, all in black and white, all projected from open reel, all 4:3. I was interested because the first tow (shortest) films were based on the music of Virgil Thomson. The films were all produced by the New Deal FDR government, and tried to argue for what government should do. According to the Wikipedia article, Thomson was well known as gay.

The first film (link) is “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” (1936, 29 min, directed and written by Pare Lorentz, produced by the Resettlement Administration) to the orchestral suite by Virgil Thomson, with the same name. The music sounds like a mixture of “pop” and Copland, and is not real heavy, and even uses a couple of familiar hymn tunes. (The credits say thThe music, with a kind of poetic narrative, shows images of the high plains from Montana to West Texas (the “staked plane” above the Escarpment and Palo Dura Canyon), and accounts for the deterioration of the region into a dust bowl, partly because of careless ranching techniques, after conquering the land from the Native Americans. So the name of the musical piece is telling.

The second such film (link) is “The River” (1937, 32 min, dir. and written by Pare Lortentz, also produced by the Resettlement Administration) is a meditation on the Mississippi River, accounting for all of its feeder tributaries from Idaho to Pennsylvania. The film describes how New Orleans was reclaimed from the marsh, and hints that over engineering could eventually make it prone to floods (which would happen with Hurricane Katrina over 60 years later). It shows men making dikes with hard manual labor, and shows other floors, but oddly does not mention the disastrous 1927 flood (the PBS American Experience film “Fatal Flood” at Greenville MS, with the story of Leroy Percy and his gay son Will). Again, Virgil Thomson’s orchestral suite provides the music score, and it is similar in style to the other, with a touch of jazz in spots. Both Lortentz films have some board-game-like map studies. (There was also a film in 1984 from Universal called "The River" dir. Mark Rydell, with Mel Gibson, about farm prices in the 1980s.)

The third film in the set (link) was “Power and the Land” (1940, RKO Radio / U.S. Film Service, Rural Electrification Administration, dir. Joris Ivens, written and narrated by Stephen Vincent Benet, 39 min). The film traces the life of a farm family of five, the Parkinsons, in southwestern Ohio. The countryside is quite hilly and looks like the western edge of Appalachia. The film shows all of the daily tasks or chores on the farm before electricity: the boys sharpen equipment with a food-pedal lever; the wife washes and irons clothes by hand, and great attention is paid to cooling milk.

The film seems to make much of the way society depends on families like this to grow its food. There seems to be an issue of karma. There is an unspoken subtext about “family values.” In those days, rural men integrated family with work, and the intimate use of their own body (in marriage), whatever the man’s family lineage, could not be separated and mulled over as if it were somehow a separate “right.” A man needed a wife and children as economic assets, so love was not as obviously or copiously “romantic” as modern society wants. The family was part of adaptive living. Less competitive people stayed home and were looked after by family. This arrangement, it seemed, reduced the temptation for government to intervene, even if it obviously accepted large disparities of wealth among families or classes of people.

In fact, it’s that conservative implementation of capitalism that comes under review in the New Deal. The power companies don’t find it profitable to extend electric service to rural areas, because there aren’t enough people to pay for the infrastructure. So, enter the government, to make loans to farmers with the idea that they will own the rural power grids as cooperatives when they pay back the loans with their electric bills.

At the end of the film, we see the “modern conveniences” that would eventually liberate both men and women somewhat from the complementarity of their gender roles, although that process would take years and follow a couple more wars. The washing machines still require wringers, however.

I wondered, if the federal government could do this for a few pennies a day as the film claimed, why couldn’t private companies then?

The last film (link) is called simply “The Land” (1939, U.S. Film Service / Agricultural Adjustment Administration, released 1942, dir. Robert Flaherty, 45 min) surveys erosion around the United States, from rain on embankments in the East and Appalachia to wind erosion in the plains. It shows sharecroppers, having lost their own farms to depression era farm prices, working the land of others for credit at the stores. It shows the migrants as in “The Grapes of Wrath” and says they are like pioneers. In Arizona and California, they had to compete with Mexicans and Filipinos for jobs, and these, the film says, were “strong.” The music score, by Richard Arnell, is rather “Aaron Copland” like, rising to climaxes that remind on of the latter's Third Symphony.

The first of these films advertised "noise free" sound -- the best that could be done in 1936.

1 comment:

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